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What Is a Big Box Retailer?

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  • Written By: Alan Rankin
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 08 February 2019
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2019
    Conjecture Corporation
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A big box retailer is a modern type of store characterized by its large size and inventory. It can also be known as a superstore, megacenter, or hypermarket. Most big box retailers are part of national or international chains that can purchase items in great volume and subsequently reduce prices for consumers. They are often located in suburban shopping districts, where real estate is generally cheaper and more plentiful than in urban areas. Despite its popularity with shoppers, the concept of the big box retailer is controversial for some because of its economic and social effects.

Until the early 20th century, most retail stores were small, locally operated facilities with limited merchandise. In the 1920s, companies such as A&P in the northeastern United States introduced the concept of the chain store and the supermarket. These stores offered greater variety of products and lower prices than their local competition. This became the model for the big box retailer of the later 20th century. Although the origin of the term “big box” is not known, it may have been suggested by the boxlike structure of the buildings.

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The big box retailer chains can afford to acquire large quantities of inventory directly from producers and then divide it among hundreds or thousands of individual stores. As they buy in bulk, they pay less per item and can charge less for items than smaller competing stores. These lower prices are the main draws for customers of big box retailers, which is why these companies are sometimes called “category killers.” This economic structure, it has been argued, is designed to eliminate competition. Many towns have protested the arrival of big box retailers because of the perceived threat to small local businesses.

Other aspects of the big box retailer have also created controversy. The stores are often situated on the outskirts of towns or in suburbs, where huge areas of land are given over to their vast buildings and parking areas. This has been cited as increasing traffic congestion in these outlying areas, resulting in increased emissions and road construction. Labor activists also protest that the stores offer meager pay and benefits and do not allow collective bargaining, such as unions. In the 2000s, a landmark class-action lawsuit in the U.S. alleged that a leading big box retailer discriminated against female employees in pay and promotions.

Despite these issues, big box retailers are popular with shoppers around the world. The economic strife of the early 21st century only made these establishments more attractive to consumers seeking bargains on everyday staples. In the United States, the year-end holiday season produces a rush on these businesses, which offer special sales and extended hours. Specialty stores focusing on books, hardware, or electronics have followed the model of the big box retailer. Traditional retailers have also changed their economic strategies to become more competitive with the big box stores.

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